Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health- A Book Review

Explicitly curated as a collection of “real stories by real people, not just creative writing or poetry about pain” (p. vii), Side Effects of Living brings together a range of 37 deeply personal experiences with madness. Edited by poet-activists Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait, this anthology was first envisioned in an attempt to change the discourses of shame and fear that typically surround lived experiences of madness. Consisting largely – but not entirely – of submissions by authors, poets and other artists living in India or Indian diaspora abroad, the book questions, over and over, the effects of pathologization on the body-mind and the pressures that accrue from a constant push toward societal boundaries of normalcy.

Working from a thoroughly compassionate, anti-ableist understanding of what it might mean to experience the pain of various kinds and to recover, this anthology voices a number of key perspectives about the experiences of being considered mentally ill and of the processes of healing. Noteworthy among these are the two chapters by the editors, both of whom write with complete transparency about the ways in which people with psychosocial disabilities are not always assumed to have the same basic rights that the ones with physical illnesses (or no illnesses) are afforded. A common, reductive understanding of the journey within one’s own mind often includes the construction of a binary which suggests that mental health issues are often of an individual’s own making and can be resolved most swiftly through repeated interactions with the medical-industrial complex. As several other personal essays and poems in this volume note, this binary is at best reductive for its inability to validate the experiences, desires and choices of those with psychosocial disabilities.

The many contributors let you into their worlds bravely and gently, with each piece working to show what it means to grapple with and embrace the diversity of the human condition in all its messiness.

As someone who has often struggled with what it means to move toward greater normalcy of the mind, this anthology is incredibly valuable for its honesty – there are, as the editors make explicit, no easy, happy endings, as is the case with most minds in distress. As several contributors make clear, there are no neat boundaries for what might cause a deeply distressing scenario, the duration for which it is appropriate to feel pain in response, or the ways in which one might go about healing oneself. Whether it is one’s own experience of illness or a loved one’s struggle with trauma, the contributors to this anthology are careful to remind us that there is no “normal” time within which or process through which one might come to be certified as “better” or “cured.” Rather, on these journeys of making meaning of living, it is most useful to know that the abnormal – an experience of mental distress – is indeed more normal than we might think, that it exists in more ways and more places than we are able to regularly give voice to.

Importantly, too, despite drawing out the complexities of the medical-industrial complex, the many voices in this book allow for a range of opinions on its usefulness. The authors also provide a number of nuanced discussions that allow both for a discussion of the systemic forces that cause experiences of trauma and grief and for other forces that may serve as an opportunity for healing, such as methods of self- and community care. Exquisitely refreshing in its commitment to normalize that which is often thought of as abnormal, this anthology is a gift. The many contributors let you into their worlds bravely and gently, with each piece working to show what it means to grapple with and embrace the diversity of the human condition in all its messiness.

Kim is an educator, activist, lapsed writer and graduate student currently based between India and the US. They work on gender, disability and sexuality. They are on Twitter and Instagram as kimmerrlee.

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